FALL 2016

Expanding Access & Opportunity

Nicholas School Expands Scholarship Program to Attract Outstanding Students

by Laura Ertel

With the start of the Nicholas School’s new academic year came the announcement of a new scholarship program focusing on development of environmental leaders.

The Class of 2018 included the first cadre of Nicholas Scholars: nine outstanding incoming students who exemplify the school’s most valued traits—academic excellence, diverse life experiences and perspectives, and environmental leadership potential.

These emerging leaders received scholarships covering two-thirds of their tuition, the highest level of financial aid the school has ever offered. This was made possible by past and present Nicholas School donors who have started or contributed to new and existing scholarship and financial aid funds, as well as Nicholas School Annual Fund supporters.

In addition to scholarship support, Nicholas Scholars will take part in a two-year program designed to expand their understanding and inspire new perspectives and insights on environmental leadership.

Guided by a faculty advisor, they will have opportunities to network with local environmental leaders and practitioners and hone their personal leadership potential.


Every year, the Nicholas School’s admissions team pores over applications from incredibly bright, accomplished candidates who dream of coming to Duke. While the new Nicholas Scholars program offers great promise and relief for a few students, for vast majority of those accepted, the joy of admission is quickly followed by a question: Can I actually afford to go to Duke?

Providing a premier interdisciplinary environmental education is expensive. The projected tuition or expenditure for a two-year Master of Environmental Management or Master of Forestry degree is nearly $120,000. Joint-degree students earning a MEM/MBA or MEM/JD face an even higher tuition bill. The Nicholas School provides as much financial aid as possible—85 percent of our students receive some level of support, but it’s clear more is needed.

The school admits students on a “need-blind” basis, but is not yet in a position to meet most students’ entire demonstrated need.

Those who do choose Nicholas graduate with an unparalleled education and access to an extensive alumni network, but leave with an average debt of $59,000. That’s a staggering burden, particularly for those going into careers in environmental nonprofits and public service, where the median salary is just $52,500.

“Our faculty and staff really get to know our prospective students in the recruitment process, so when one of them tells us that he or she desperately wants to come to Nicholas, but simply cannot afford it, it’s heartbreaking,” says Nicholas School Interim Dean Jeff Vincent. “This is someone who cares deeply about the environment, and has such potential for leadership and impact. We have to remove the financial roadblocks for these emerging environmental leaders.”


In the final year of the universitywide Duke Forward Campaign and beyond, the Nicholas School will focus on a fundraising initiative aimed at significantly increasing the school’s financial aid resources and scholarships to reduce those difficult decisions and open doors for talented students.

Over the past year, school leaders have retooled our scholarship program in an effort to close the gap between the cost of attendance and the financial aid we can offer; reduce student debt upon graduation; and more successfully recruit the most outstanding candidates. But this is only the beginning.

“Increased scholarship support will significantly ease our students’ financial concerns and allow them to focus on getting the most out of their educational experience at Duke,” says Vincent. “Decreasing student debt will give our graduates more freedom to pursue careers where they can make the greatest impact on our environment.”

Laura Ertel is a freelance writer living in Durham.